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Shelton v. Tucker

Three Teachers Refuse To Comply

B. T. Shelton, an African American, had taught in Arkansas schools for 25 years. He was also a member of the NAACP. Before the 1959 school year, he was asked to comply with Act 10; he refused and was fired. Two other Arkansas teachers, Max Carr and Ernest Gephardt, refused to fill out the affidavits required by Act 10, though they listed some of their memberships and agreed to answer any questions regarding their qualifications to teach. They, too, were fired. All three men contested their firings in court, saying their right to personal, associational, and academic freedom had been denied. The Arkansas courts, however, upheld Act 10 and the men appealed to the federal district court, which affirmed the state courts. The issue then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court did not address the civil rights implications of Shelton and the targeting of the NAACP. Instead, the Court focused on the general issue of asking all teachers for their membership affiliations, and whether it related to the state's right to hire quality teachers. In a 5-4 decision, the Court said Act 10 was too broad and therefore violated the petitioners' right of association.

Writing for the Court, Justice Stewart said " . . . there can be no question of the relevance of a State's inquiry into the fitness and competence of its teachers." But Act 10, he continued, went too far:

. . . [T]o compel a teacher to disclose his every associational tie is to impair that teacher's right of free association, a right closely allied to freedom of speech and a right which, like freedom of speech, lies at the foundation of a free society. Such interference with personal freedom is conspicuously accented when the teacher serves at the absolute will of those to whom the disclosure must be made . . . the pressure upon a teacher to avoid any ties which might displease those who control his professional destiny would be constant and heavy . . . Many such relationships could have no possible bearing upon the teacher's occupational competence or fitness.

In his dissent, Justice Harlan said the right of free association is not absolute. Unlike National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama, where the state did not have a legitimate interest in the membership information, in this instance Arkansas did: " . . . [I]nformation about a teacher's associations may be useful to school authorities in determining the moral, professional, and social qualifications of the teacher . . . " On its face, the statute was constitutional; if at a later date Arkansas used Act 10 in some discriminatory way, the Court may have reason to act.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Shelton v. Tucker - Significance, Three Teachers Refuse To Comply, Other Naacp Cases, Further Readings